The Third Level Grant & Its Value
As students around the country sit down to fill out their CAOs, the importance of further education is brought sharply into focus. The number of those from the most marginalised households attending third level, while increasing, is still minimal. In fact, there are still significantly more early school leavers than third level graduates in many disadvantaged communities. With every third young person currently out of work, the importance of attending college need not be underlined.
Currently, one of the greatest challenges within the system is the tension between the student grant and the lure of social welfare payments. The ‘Special Rate’ third level grant for students living at home was €2,375 in 2013. The cost of going to one’s local college is conservatively costed at in excess of €4,000 a year. The immediate deficit between the two figures is clear. While the shortfall may be made up by a part-time job or a loan, the educational assistance of the state does not represent any challenge to the social welfare assistance of €5,200 per annum for those between eighteen and twenty-one.
While the abandonment of education in return for a state benefit may appear a very myopic view, reality is shaped by perception. If a young person’s peer group is on the dole, it is normal to be on the dole. If a young person’s role models finished school at second level, it is normal to finish school at second level. It takes a very strong seventeen or eighteen year old to step outside this and recognise the possible payoff three or four years down the line. Against this backdrop, college must be presented much more favourably.
The second challenge is support. Not every college has the formidable resources offered by the likes of Trinity College’s ‘TAP Programme’ or the University of Limerick’s ‘College Access Campus’. Smaller colleges often make do with a part-time access officer. This one-person service might be spread over different campuses and inhibited from developing anything but the most superficial of rapports with the majority of students. As a result, it is only the proactive, confident and persistent student who will be able to capitalise on the support. These are unreasonable expectations to de facto make of any young person, not least one in a foreign and possibly intimidating environment.
Compounding this is the contrast in support offered to many marginalised students on their journey from second to third level. This investment of time, enthusiasm and advocacy in school is not always shared, or possible, in large, impersonal third level colleges. There is little connection with an individual’s family, community or history. That is not to suggest these students should be absolved of responsibility but rather such a precipitous drop in support can be very destabilising, especially at such a chaotic period of a young person’s life. We must also remember that college can be extremely trying at the best of time; even with every advantage, some 10-15% of mainstream students still drop out each year.
There is, however, cause for hope as we can do a lot to change the current situation. The first step, a coherent cross-over between second and third level, is already being embraced by a number of schools and colleges. Visits to campuses, lectures and sports facilities are all excellent ways to create familiarity. Meeting current students is another way to foster a sense of community. An extension of this would be creating a personal rapport with access officers. Simply being able to put a face to a name or knowing the location of the appropriate office, can be invaluable during the hectic first term. Equally, access officers visiting young people in their communities and appreciating the challenges they face will foster greater understanding for college administrations.
Secondly, irrespective of the perception, the grant must be raised to, or even surpass, social welfare rates in specific circumstances. For a whole host of reasons, the perspective of many young people is governed by immediacy. Tomorrow is a life-time away. The concept that a considerable comfort must be delayed for three or four years on the prospect, but not guarantee, of a job, is impractical. Furthermore, such an investment would effectively be cost neutral. Without continuing to third level education, the individual would be entitled to support through social welfare.
Lastly, communities themselves must be proactive. In Ballinacurra-Weston, an area often made famous for all the wrong reasons, the local youth centre has established a ‘College Programme’ where one young person from the community is supported on their journey through college. While there is some slight financial support, the main focus is establishing bridges between the community and institutions: introducing the young person to the access officer, visiting him on campus once a week and academic support, if required. In short, the programme offers a friendly face. Unfortunately, all this must be done on top of the usual workload and a youth work budget reduced by over 33% in the last four years. Were the initiative not identified by the young people themselves as an essential stepping stone to future development, it never even would have been piloted in the first place.
If we are serious about addressing access to college, we must be serious about the resources we choose to invest. The current situation can only perpetuate the exclusive nature of our third level institutions.